Your teeth are nothing without your gums. Healthy gums support teeth that tend to stay firmly fixed in place. But that’s not the only reason to ensure your gums stay healthy.

“We know that gum disease is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, pregnancy complications, Alzheimer’s disease, certain cancers, etc.,” says Dr. Christopher Hill of City Smiles. “These connections between the mouth and the body highlight the importance of good oral health and dental stability in assuring better general health.”

Dr. Ethan Schuman of Schuman Center Dental Aesthetics agrees. “They say that the mouth is the gateway to the body. It very often gives us a clue or an insight into the overall general health of the body.”

Theories about the reasons for the links between gum health and serious disease elsewhere in the body focus on the potential role of bacteria and inflammation. Bacteria that are present in plaque and gingivitis may travel to other parts of the body and cause infection. Another hallmark of gum disease is inflammation—the obvious red, puffy gums that indicate gingivitis. Increasingly, inflammation is implicated in a variety of serious medical conditions, playing a part in cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Since childhood, most people have had the basics of dental health drummed into them: brush and floss every day, and see your dentist for a cleaning and check-up every six months. So why is gum disease still a problem for so many people?

“We see patients every day that have gum disease,” Hill says. “The prevalence will always be there. It is not our job to judge; rather it is our job to inform, educate and treat. Over the last couple of years, many have lost their jobs and/or benefits, resulting in people skipping check-ups. We see more patients having to play ‘catch-up’ for the missed appointments.”

Schuman adds that “people don’t realize the effects of acidic foods and drinks, smoking or certain medications on the gums.” For instance, dilantin, a common anti-convulsive drug, can contribute to gum disease, among other side effects.

Preventing gum disease has become a major business. Fancy products that promise to make gum care a breeze are available at any local drugstore. However, the gold standard continues to be low-tech, cheap and easy to use: dental floss.

“Yes, flossing is still the most economical way to keep the teeth and gums healthy, however, not many people floss,” Hill notes. “While this is not ideal, it is reality. So companies such as Sonicare and Phillips/Oral B have invested a lot of money to create products that patients can use ‘instead’ of floss, such as electric toothbrushes.”

No matter which method you favor, taking care of your gums can pay off in a healthier smile and a healthier body.